Testart on democracy, democratic debate and citizen power, Part 1

Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, is a long-time advocate for citizen power, especially as it concerns control of science-related issues. His work in this area stretches back decades. In 2002 Testart co-founded the Association for Citizen Sciences. In a 2017 interview (Le Comptoir, Part 1, Part 2), parts of which are translated below, Testart discusses democracy, public debate, and citizen control of science.

Science, such as economics, could be a carrier of truth because of its neutrality. However, among other examples, the basic axiom of the Work Law forced through, against the opinion of millions of workers affected, rests on a certain “scientific” concept of economics. This law is a good demonstration that this supposed neutrality which economics maintains is in fact such in the eyes of the minority in power alone. When the social contract is under stress, when the decision-makers prefer Capital over the people, it may be necessary to try and consider about how it is put together, in order to be able to improve democracy. Jacques Testart, formerly a research biologist and “father” of the first French test-tube baby, now devotes his time to this goal, notably through the Association for Citizen Sciences. With this in mind, he has recently published “Rêveries d’un chercheur solidaire“, “L’humanitude au pouvoir – Comment les citoyens peuvent décider du bien commun” and “Faire des enfants demain“. We went to meet him. In the first part we discussed the collapse of democracy, in which the flag barriers of Truth are thoroughly involved. The means for making democracy work are discussed in the second part.

Le Comptoir: We hear here and there that democracy is experiencing a “crisis” of representation. Due to the professionalization of politics, the elected are no longer (if they ever were) really representative of their voters, but are rather members of a political-media-financial oligarchy. What do you think?

Testart: That is obvious, yes. The problem is knowing if those who occupy the leadership circles are leaders or representatives. They consider themselves to be leaders because they are elected, and therefore have popular support. But originally, the rules of the game were aimed at – and things must get back to this – them being only representatives. They ability to initiate during their term should be limited by their initial mandate, accounting for unexpected developments. In no case should they be allowed to take decisions that do not conform to the promises for which they were elected. I believe this is a really fundamental point. It is this which dispirits a lot of people, politically, and leads them to abstain. It lead to the rise of the “everything is corrupt” attitude on which the extreme right prospers.

Le Comptoir: May we say that this crisis of representation is also due to an appalling lack of debate regarding issues regarding which there is a consensus among experts in media? I am thinking specifically regarding assisted reproductive technology and the barrage of articles published daily about new “advanced” technologies, presenting all manner of gadgets and announcing “revolutions” to come, from self-driving cars to the bionic prostheses.
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Kleroterion 2.0; Our Once and Future Escape Key

This is the third post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here and the second post is here.

There are mass demonstrations in cities throughout the United States and around the world against racism, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was recorded being choked to death by a police officer while in custody. Among his last words, “Please, I can’t breathe” are now a slogan repeated and sung around the world, a metaphor for the stifling nature of racialized oppression. Here in Ontario — the Toronto-Niagara Golden Horseshoe region is the most racial and ethnically diverse in the world, a place where immigrants are popular and in Toronto  are actually the majority –there have still been large street demonstrations against deaths-while-in-custody of certain Black and Indigenous people who were suffering from mental illness. Why is it, Toronto activists ask, that money meant to alleviate problems in poor neighbourhoods is directed away from local social workers and towards force, armed police and other arbitrary measures? In the Canadian Parliament, Elizabeth May, leader of the opposition Green Party, summarized a large part of the problem,

She urged an inquiry to weed out white-power groups in Canada and make sure they are not infiltrating police forces. `Because if there is one thing scarier than a white supremacist with a gun, it’s a white supremacist with a gun in uniform.’ (1)

Mr. Floyd’s plea for air resonates so universally because none are guarding the guardians. Clearly, bullies in uniform tasked with enforcing social distancing laws are targeting and persecuting visible minorities, worsening the climate of fear that visible minorities already suffer under. The democratic institutions that depend upon justice, especially but not exclusively the police, to uphold the rule of law are blocking reform and accountability and stifling the very purpose for which they exist, to serve the social good, protect the vulnerable and assure the safety, order and security of everyone, not just the privileged. So, these are the questions of the hour: How can democracies end the perilous insularity of the police? How do we reinstate badly degraded trust in authority? Why is the guardian branch of governance so prone to corruption, bullying and infiltration by sociopaths? How do we end the vicious cycle of escalating violence, reaction and oppression?
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Sortition in the New Yorker, again

For the second time in less than a year, sortition is mentioned in the New Yorker. Last time, it was merely an off-handed comment. This time, sortition is front and center. Nathan Heller’s article is built around an interview with Hélène Landemore. Alexander Guerrero also gets quoted.

Landemore’s ideal is participative, but she seems to be working with a rather loose concept for her proposals:

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out.

As evidence that open democracy can work in large[…,] culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change.

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Two views on Climate Assembly UK

A citizens assembly discussing climate issues is meeting for the first time this weekend.

Ordinary people from across the UK – potentially including climate deniers – will take part in the first ever citizens’ climate assembly this weekend.

Mirroring the model adopted in France by Emmanuel Macron, 110 people from all walks of life will begin deliberations on Saturday to come up with a plan to tackle global heating and meet the government’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The assembly was selected to be a representative sample of the population after a mailout to 30,000 people chosen at random. About 2,000 people responded saying they wanted to be considered for the assembly, and the 110 members were picked by computer.

They come from all age brackets and their selection reflects a 2019 Ipsos Mori poll of how concerned the general population is by climate change, where responses ranged from not at all to very concerned. Of the assembly members, three people are not at all concerned, 16 not very concerned, 36 fairly concerned, 54 very concerned, and one did not know, organisers said.
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Citizen Climate Convention: Become a Democratic Assembly!

An open letter to the members of the French Citizen Climate Convention from several mass-action environmental organizations was recently published in Reporterre – a French environmental daily newspaper. [Original in French.]

A Citizen Climate Convention has been convening since October 4 over the course of 6 sessions of three days each until the upcoming January. How to make sure this unprecedented test of collective democracy, which gives 150 allotted citizens the power to deliberate measures for reducing France’s CO2 emissions by at least 40% in 10 years, does not end up as a tool of self-promotion for a government whose real policy for the last two years has been so blatantly anti-environmental that it forces Nicolas Hulot, its very moderate minister of the environment, to resign? That is possible if the allotted rely on their popular legitimacy in order to change the nature and the objective of their upcoming deliberations. It is for this democratic usurpation that we are calling.

What is it that makes you legitimate, more legitimate in any case than the committee that is supposed to “govern” you? It is not that fact that you were allotted according to social-professional or geographic “representivity” criteria defined by the polling institute. This representativity has no democratic value. The fact that an allotted woman is a self-employed resident of Brittany like me does not in any way guarantee that she would faithfully represent my political convictions. It is therefore not the allotment according to social-professional categories which makes you close to your fellow citizens, but rather the fact that you share their situation of democratic dispossession. In these dying days of this deceptive regime of “representative democracy”, we are all reduced to being nothing more than private individuals, deprived of any meaningful political power.
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A Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is the coward’s way out

Interesting article by Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator on citizens’ assemblies. In response to the demands of Extinction Rebellion, letters inviting 30,000 households across the UK to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change were sent out last week by an alliance of six Commons select committees, chaired by Rachel Reeves. The author (an Irish Catholic) has some alarming claims to make regarding the citizens’ assembly on the repeal of the eighth constitutional amendment (on abortion). It’s a short and interesting piece, so I won’t bother to post extracts.

All the comments posted after the Spectator article are critical of the design of such deliberative assemblies which (IMO) run the danger of bringing the entire sortition movement into disrepute.

Cook: Sortition is an element in a war on civilization

Michael Cook, editor of MercatorNet, issues a strong warning against the Extinction Rebellion movement. Here are some excerpts:

Extinction Rebellion’s loopy politics

The movement’s “Declaration of Rebellion”, a pastiche of America’s “Declaration of Independence”, states: “We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.”

Declaring the “social contract” null and void is a radical step – so radical that either the author did not understand it (unlikely) or he thought that no one else would (likely). Stopping traffic? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This is a declaration of war on civilization.

There is but one rational, ethical, and spiritual position on climate change. None other is possible. “The ecological crises that are impacting upon this nation, and indeed this planet and its wildlife can no longer be ignored, denied nor go unanswered by any beings of sound rational thought, ethical conscience, moral concern, or spiritual belief,” the declaration says.

In a democracy, questioning an opponent’s sincerity about his convictions is the ultimate offence. Convictions are tested by rational debate, not by smearing people as venal, wicked or stupid. But this is just what XR is doing.

XR demands that countries go “beyond politics”. “Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.” Why? Because “Political power in the UK is in the hands of a few elected politicians” says the “Our Demands” page on the XR website. This, of course, is true. Putting power in the hands of elected politicians is called representative democracy and it has a long and successful history of defending political and personal freedom.
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Sortition in the press

Some recent media items mentioning sortition:

Jack Hunter, a research fellow at think tank IPPR North, writes in PSE proposes to use the Northern Powerhouse to encourage greater social purpose among businesses in the region by having investment directed by an allotted citizen panel.

The Northern Powerhouse was created in Whitehall, but is increasingly something owned and championed by the north’s leaders. Because of this, there is also the opportunity to leverage the strength of the north’s history and culture, to develop a more civic role for businesses.

In a recent report, IPPR North set out how to make this happen. One idea we have put forward is the creation of a Northern Powerhouse Community Fund. We suggested that a pan-northern charitable fund should be set up, funded through a voluntary contribution of 1% of profits from northern businesses in order to help to fund voluntary and community activity in the region. Decisions about investment would be made by a panel of northern citizens, chosen by sortition.

Such a fund would give firms across the north a new opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. At the same time, it could be an opportunity to give people in the north a greater say in where money in their region goes.

Allotted citizen panels are part of Extinction Rebellion’s call to action:
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The Uses and Abuses of Sortition

Given that sortition is finally beginning to be taken seriously by politicians, academics and the mainstream media, some of us on this forum have expressed concerns about potential abuse. André has drawn our attention to the risk of politicians and public intellectuals using sortition to provide a patina of legitimacy to undemocratic practices — examples include Emanuel Macron’s ‘Great Debate’ — and there has been the usual concerns about the rich ‘n powerful using sortition to paper over the cracks of the electoralist oligarchy.

My own concerns are over the willingness of sortition advocates to assume that small stratified samples, in which participation is entirely voluntary, can represent the beliefs and preferences of all citizens. Leaving aside the size issue (most statisticians insist on a minimum of several hundred or even 1,000 for a representative sample) my principal concern is that the voluntary principle will significantly over-represent activists, “progressives” and those who want to change things, as oppose to the ‘silent majority’. The decision of the 2004 British Columbia Constitutional Assembly to change the voting system was overturned in the subsequent referendum, but this might well have been anticipated as only 4% of the original random sample opted for selection, thereby generating an unrepresentative sample (Warren and Pearse, 2008). My assumption here is that the decision not to participate might well be a sign of a conservative (small ‘c’) disposition.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a UK climate-change group which has gained a lot of publicity recently on account of its civil disobedience campaign, which brought much of  central London to a standstill in April. Their goal is zero carbon emissions by 2025, which would mean the banning of air transport and the removal of 38 million cars (both petrol and diesel) from the roads. In addition, 26 million gas boilers would need to be disconnected in six years.
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A response to Cody Hipskind, part 3 of 3

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The previous parts of my response are here and here.

Political activism under a democratic system

A major tenet of democratic ideology is that people are the best representatives of their own interests: when provided sufficient opportunity, each person and each group of people are best able to understand and express their own values and ideas and the actions that should be taken in order to promote these values and ideas. This tenet is in contrast to “republican” ideology which shares with democratic ideology the idea that everyone’s interests should count equally, but asserts that some people (“a natural aristocracy”) are best qualified to determine what those interests are and how they should be pursued, and therefore those people should be in charge.

Elections are a republican, anti-democratic mechanism: they empower an elite to determine public policy for others (whether this elite may be called a “natural aristocracy” is a matter of taste, I guess). That elite should be able to represent itself, the democratic tenet asserts, but is quite unlikely to represent the majority of the people who are very different from it. Sortition, through the process of statistical sampling, creates a body that by representing itself would represent the public at large.

However, the capacity for self-representation is not a spontaneous, automatic capacity. Getting a group of people (or a single person, for that matter) to the state where it is able to represent its own interests effectively is not a trivial matter. From an institutional standpoint, there are clearly some preconditions that need to be met: there need to be enough resources at the disposal of the group so that reliable information can be gathered. There needs to be enough time to discuss matters, determine an agenda, fashion proposals, debate them, amend them, vote on them, evaluate the effect of the adopted policy, reconsider the matter and repeat the procedure over time.
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